Tag Archives: public gardens

“A garden is really the gardener”

The woman on the left looked a little underwhelmed by Sissinghurst too

I have always felt I needed to whisper rather than shout that, while we enjoyed our one and only visit to Sissinghurst, it did not inspire us to return. Considering the huge influence this English garden has had throughout both the UK and, more surprisingly, little ol’ New Zealand, I have wondered if we were being overly critical, maybe “gardened-out” when we visited it.

The thyme lawn was not a crowning glory when we visited Sissinghurst

It seems not. I was just going to share the link to English landscape designer Dan Pearson’s latest blog  on our garden Facebook page  but then I thought there is a bigger context for this interesting post of his. Pearson is writing about his advisory work with the head gardener at Sissinghurst to re-personalise that famous garden, restoring some of the energy and also the intimacy of what started out as a very personal garden. Over time, Pearson observes, “The way the garden became was ultimately driven by the need to provide for increasing numbers of visitors and, in so doing, the intimate sense of place was slowly and gradually altered.”

And there is the conundrum when a private garden enters the public domain following the deaths of its creators. If it is successful and well-resourced, the expectations of the visiting public play an ever-larger role in determining how the garden will be presented and maintained.

… but the Sissinghurst tower did not disappoint. However, it is structural and therefore a permanent feature

I had been reading some debate about this in the book by Tim Richardson, “You Should Have Been Here Last Week”. As far back as 2004, he was sounding the alarm bells about Sissinghurst. Writing for the Garden Design Journal, he said: “Every day, coachloads of people turn up at Sissinghurst to experience Vita Sackville-West’s garden, yet what they get bears no relation to the original in terms of content or atmosphere”. Further on in the book is his 2015 update, welcoming the appointment of Troy Scott Smith as new head gardener with Dan Pearson in an advisory role.

We have watched with interest the developments of the “regional gardens” in Taranaki – the ratepayer funded gardens of Tupare and Hollards (both created as very personal visions with owners long dead now) and Pukeiti. When the takeover was first being promoted by the regional council, I wrote several strong pieces for the local paper (see below), frankly alarmed at what was being proposed, let alone the budget. In the years since, we have backed off expressing our views publicly about what is happening in these gardens. All I can say is that in my last visit to Hollards, I felt that the originators, Bernard and Rose Hollard, had pretty much disappeared, bar some faded photographic display cut-outs of Bernie.

The faded life-size cut-out of Bernard Hollard is a little poignant

I don’t think these gardens are a victim so much of their own success – we simply don’t get enough garden visitors to Taranaki to put extreme pressure on gardens. I think they are a victim of the drive to attract numbers of general visitors to justify the expenditure. If that means sacrificing the original ambience and character of these gardens, then so be it.

Matched by faded information boards, purportedly written in the first person. Was the term “food forest” even heard of when Bernard Hollard was still alive?

Mark knew Bernie, as he was known to his family and friends, personally and is adamant that he would never have grown yams in an old tractor tyre and indeed his tidy vegetable garden was hidden away from public view

Pearson captures it in a nutshell, when he writes: “Even when the blueprint is strong, gardens can easily assume a different character, for a garden is really the gardener.”

Hollards’ modest home was demolished to make way for a visitor centre, designed in the style I call “Utility Department of Conservation”

Earlier published columns on the topic of regional gardens:

1) A letter from a ratepayer. Published July 2010 I am not sure I would be brave enough to publish this piece in the newspaper these days. I must have been more fearless back then.
2) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March 2010.
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
4) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
5) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. (first published 2005). When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

But where is the vision today? In Canberra. Apparently.

I can tell you that the Melia azedarach at the National Arboretum in Canberra was planted by Doctor Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste in 2010.

I can tell you that the Melia azedarach at the National Arboretum in Canberra was planted by Doctor Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste, in 2010.

I doubt that many people take the time to pause and send a vote of thanks to our forbears who had the vision to create city parks and botanic gardens. Our closest city of New Plymouth has its Pukekura Park, 52 hectares of park and gardens about 5 minutes’ walk from the main street. It dates back to the visionaries of 1880 and provides a green heart to the city. It is loved with a passion by locals and attracts large visitor numbers. Other New Zealand cities have their equivalents but most date back to a similar era. Aside from Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens being established in Manurewa, I can’t think of major new ventures from modern times.

img_0854It was a second visit to the National Arboretum in Canberra that had me thinking along these lines. This enormous project, encompassing 250 hectares, is a response to the devastating bush fires of 2003 which burned out the area. It is a grand vision, still in its infancy, that will create a legacy for generations to come.

Looking over the city from the arboretum

Looking over the city from the arboretum

While some areas can look a little … utility, shall I say, at this early stage and the selection of some tree cultivars to be represented en masse may raise a dendrologist’s eyebrows, the large vision will triumph over such doubts with time. The infrastructure is going in with attention to architecture that will blend with the landscape, an attractive educational area and one of the most delightful children’s play areas I have seen in a long time. Everything appears to be done with a view to sustainable growth in the long term and it is an impressive venture. It has an international flavour with involvement from foreign embassies and heads of state. This is Canberra, after all.

Indubitably Australian at the National Botanic Gardens

Indubitably Australian at the National Botanic Gardens

Canberra also has the National Botanic Gardens which were not officially opened until as late as 1970 although the first small steps to establishing them were taken in the late 1940s. In that harsh climate of hot, dry summers and cold winters which are often dry, they don’t get the same growth rates that we get here and to my eyes, the gardens still look young. I have been to them several times now. Because the focus is entirely on Australian native plants, they have a very different flavour to anything I see elsewhere and I really enjoy that difference, along with seeing new areas being developed within the site. It is indubitably …Australian. As it should be.

Banksia species in abundance at the Botanical Gardens in August

Banksia species in abundance at the Botanical Gardens in August

It made me wonder where our courageous new ventures are here. We generally steer clear of publicly criticising the local money being spent by the Taranaki Regional Council on what are described as the ‘regional gardens’. This amounts to many millions of dollars more than I think most ratepayers realise but it also sniffs of the cargo-cult mentality – build it and the crowds will come. It remains to be seen if that will happen but it seems unlikely in the long term. The problem is that the Council took on three existing gardens, all of which suffer from issues including obscure location, difficult access, off-putting terrain, pretty awful micro climates and somewhat anachronistic gardening visions from times past.

With so much spare money sloshing in the budget, we can’t help but think it was a missed opportunity to create a new vision for future generations, getting the location, micro climate and terrain right from the start. The role of public green spaces is so very important and likely to get more so into the future. It would be good to look to the future and to invest in that, rather than resting on the laurels of the visionaries of the distant past.

Banksia pods in the children's playground at the arboretum

Banksia pods in the children’s playground at the arboretum

and acorn pods

and acorn pods



A very public garden

Shimmering grasses in the lightest of breezes.

Shimmering grasses in the lightest of breezes.

Monday this week found me wandering the Auckland Botanic Gardens in Manurewa. It is a few years since I have been there and I was curious to see if they were experimenting with ideas from the New Perennials Movement which I referenced in last week’s column. I felt sure they would be because the staff and management there are pretty innovative and on-trend. They weren’t, as far as this went.

No matter, there is always plenty else to look at. The Auckland Bot Gardens are still young. When you think about it, most botanical gardens go back a long way and have a backbone of very mature trees. I can remember when we first started to notice the new plantings from the motorway and how barren, windswept and inhospitable the site appeared. That was back in the early 1980s. There are easier sites to work with than this one.

Readers who have been to the famed Wisley Gardens south of London, may recall the background hum of noise from the adjacent motorway. That hum reaches a roaring crescendo when one gets to the trial grounds there. When I found the trial grounds (somewhat dominated by penstemons) where the sound track is the nearby Auckland motorway, I realised there are certain parallels between the Auckland Bot Gardens and Wisley.

It is not just the motorway noise, though. It is the very strong educative function that is threaded throughout that interested me.

Always a sucker for the ducks

Always a sucker for the ducks

Public gardening is a very different kettle of fish to private gardening and it has to meet many different needs. We have never forgotten Jack Hobbs, Director at Auckland, telling us that their extensive visitor surveys had just yielded the information that the single biggest reason visitors came was to feed the ducks. These days, lycra-clad exercise fiends may possibly have taken over the top spot but the gardens are there for a range of purposes – recreation, entertainment, education, plant conservation, even inspiration. I have a great deal of respect for those whose job is to keep all those threads together and still present an aesthetically pleasing, well maintained environment.

Clipped Muehlenbeckia astonii and nikau palms show native plants are not boring at all

Clipped Muehlenbeckia astonii and nikau palms show native plants are not boring at all

Personally, having found the perennial plantings pleasant but not all I had hoped for in terms of inspiring contemporary styles, it was the native plantings that brought a gleam to my eye. Here were ideas that take the use of native plants beyond the bush or forest context of the wild. The abstract shapes of clipped muhlenbeckia were nothing short of inspirational in terms of domestic gardening, as were some of the plant combinations. And the grasses in the children’s gardens set against nikau palms brought to life all I had read about the charm of movement when the lightest of breezes ripples through the fine foliage of these plants. It is time we shed once and for all those awful clichés about native plants being boring. Any plant can be dull or uninspiring in certain situations. It is how we use them in a garden or landscaping context that makes the difference.

Others may take more from the display area dedicated to trees suited to small urban gardens or maybe the environmentally friendly process of dealing with storm water run-off or the roof garden. There is the large rockery – more hot-climate desert than traditional rockery, rose gardens that I didn’t go too and plenty more. Some may even enjoy the large beds of garish red blooms – begonias, from memory. Gardens like these have to cater for all types and that includes dog walkers.

I politely admired two, elderly, plump chihuahuas (not corgis)

I politely admired two, elderly, plump chihuahuas (not corgis)

I have not mentioned the temporary sculpture trail. While I saw one or two pieces that I quite liked, there were others that I thought tacky (it’s a fine line to tread between whimsy and tack) and others that I felt did not enhance the environment at all. Sticking out like dogs’ balls came to mind but I am more interested in design and plants than ornamentation. Others feel very differently as evidenced by the enormous popularity of outdoor sculpture exhibitions.

Botanic gardens and leading parks are expensive to run without many means of cost recovery. But when you look at how widely used these urban spaces are, how many different roles they fill, at the often passionate attachments local residents have to their gardens, at the huge contribution they make to the quality of urban life, I guess most of us feel the costs are fully justified.

Ratepayers can get up in arms about many issues, but fortunately it is rarely about the cost of running these city gardens. Long may that last.

It is impossible to get everything right all of the time. The sign by this sad plant read “Better than box. Little leaves and lots of new growth from the base make Hebe ‘Wiri Mist’ a great little hedge.” I think not.

It is impossible to get everything right all of the time. The sign by this sad plant read “Better than box. Little leaves and lots of new growth from the base make Hebe ‘Wiri Mist’ a great little hedge.” I think not.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.